Monday, October 20, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles, week 6



The Empty Church
Philippians 2:1-11
October 19, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling Il
Christina Berry



Dear Sisters and Brothers of the 21st century American church,
Greetings from the church at Philippi.

Our city was founded by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, about 350 years before the time of Christ. We were once the site of a strategic garrison, and a royal mint. During the Roman civil war, Philippi was the place where Mark Antony and Octavian caught up to Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. After that war, our town became a popular retirement city for Roman soldiers. Philippi was populated mostly by Romans and Greeks.

Paul first visited our city on his early missionary journeys, when the Holy Spirit came to him in a dream and told him to come to Macedonia. Even though Paul was arrested during his very first visit to us, he loved us and wrote to us with deep affection and joy.

This scripture provides an ethic that describes how we are to live—lives of Christlike humility, for the glory of God in Jesus Christ. It contains one of the earliest and most beautiful hymns to Jesus. Listen for God’s word to the church, and to you, in this part of our letter called Philippians chapter 2, verses one through eleven.

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11 and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


With this letter, we are wrapping up our series on the epistles, those living letters from the first century that still serve to inform us today. Up to now, every letter we have looked at was written in order to address a problem or conflict in the congregation. This letter, and particularly this part of the letter, was written to encourage those faithful Christians at Philippi to keep on doing what they were doing, to keep on being faithful.

Paul starts the letter in his customary form, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The next lines are an expression of praise and gratitude, demonstrating the love and trust that Paul has for this congregation. You have heard these words many times, because we use them in this congregation for recognition of volunteers, and in our thanksgiving prayers: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

That opening preface sets the tone for a letter filled with joy and affection. Paul LOVES this congregation. And they love him. If there had been a first century version of Hallmark, they’ve have created a month for “pastor appreciation” and sold a TON of cards in Philippi. If there had been a “congregation appreciation” card available, Paul couldn’t have purchased one, because he was in prison. So he wrote this letter to them, this letter of encouragement and joy.

In this second chapter, which, you remember, is an artificial division, since actual letters don’t have chapters and verses, Paul refers back to the end of the first chapter, where he reminds them to continue to be faithful to the gospel. He is not chiding them, not scolding them – this letter does not have tickets for a guilt trip enclosed. Instead, he is sending a word of encouragement to use “the most unused resource in the church: who the members are and what they already know.”[1]

This section of the letter hinges on that tiny Greek word, EI. Paul uses it four times:

IF there is any encouragement in Christ,
IF there is any comfort in love,
IF there any sharing in the Spirit,
IF there is any affection and compassion…

EI in Greek can have different meanings – it can be used conditionally in both negative and positive ways: “if I were king, but I am not” “if I were your friend, and I am” We use the word IF to express something that is not – “IF only I were the queen of the world,” But Paul uses IF not to question whether there is encouragement, love, sharing and compassion, but to affirm it. In this regard, we could say that EI means not IF, but SINCE.

SINCE there encouragement in Christ,
SINCE there is comfort in love,
SINCE there sharing in the Spirit,
SINCE there is affection and compassion,

Paul wants the church at Philippi to continue “thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.” It is plenty to consider, how a community can continue in attitudes of unity, love, concord and sympathy. Paul calls on the church at Philippi, and the church here and now in Sterling, to have the mind of Christ, who emptied himself.

Yes, have THAT mind in yourselves.
Have THAT orientation in your congregation.
Be an empty church.

Be a church that opens its doors not only so that others may come in,
but in order to go out to the world.
Be a church that opens its heart, not only to receive the love of God in Christ Jesus,
but in order to give and share that love with all people, everywhere.
Be a church that seeks not to fill the pews but to fill what is empty –
hungry stomachs, needs in the community and the world, hands reaching out for hope.
The letter speaks in the imperative: Do this, obey this command.
And do it not for yourself, not for your selfish considerations, not for your own glory, not so that you get your picture on the front page of the Gazette, not so that everybody in town knows your name, not so that you can fill up the pews on Sunday morning.

Do this for the joy of it.
Do this because Christ commands it.
Do this because we are called, over and over, to love God and love neighbor,
and to live lives that evince that love
in every place,
in every moment,
in every action.

In worship this morning, you received a letter, written by hand and sealed with a wax seal. This letter is to you, one of God’s own people, claimed by Christ. The worship team prepared this letter for you as a reminder of our call not only as individual Christians but as the community of faith.

We hope that you will open it, keep it,
look at it, read it again and again.
We hope that this letter will help us to become an empty church,
a church that empties itself of pride so that it can be filled with compassion,
a church that empties out every Sunday
in order to go into the world and fill it with good things,
a church that renders to no one evil for evil;
strengthens the fainthearted; supports the weak;
helps the afflicted; honors everyone…”

It is plenty to consider, and easier said than done.
In fact, it is too hard to undertake, too much to ask.
Except – except!
if we adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus,
the attitude expressed in this early and glorious hymn to Christ,
still sung today by Christians around the world,
an orientation that looks toward Christ, and Christ alone.
He was humiliated in order that he could be exalted.
He became as one despised and rejected, an object of humiliation,
so that we could know what true forgiveness is.
He went down to the grave so that we could be raised to life.
He tasted death so that we might live.
He laid down his life so that he could take it up again.
He gave himself so that we know true grace and generosity.
He emptied himself so that we could be filled.

Therefore, the song continues,
“Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

This is our purpose, and our call: to be an empty church.
To God alone be the glory.

Amen.








[1] Craddock, Fred. Interpretation Commentary Series, Philippians, John Knox Press, 1985, p. 36

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